"Don't talk of love
Well I've heard the word before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried."
-Simon and Garfunkle | I am a Rock
The first notes of Bookends slowly crawled to her ears. She attempted to calm herself with the song’s relaxing melody, and her heartbeats were already going in sync with it when someone suddenly nudged her ribs. Without taking off her earphones, she twisted in the low stool and shot whoever was disturbing her music trip a deadly glare. Her eyes softened when she saw that it was Roark, who was now raising his hands in mock surrender.
“—ake it easy,” she heard him saying as she yanked off the earphones. “You look as if you’re going to attack me. I won’t fight you, you know.”
She looked up at him, trying to ignore her heart that went trip-hammering again. She noted that he didn’t change much in…what, five years? The raindrops that clung to his hair glittered under the bright 7-Eleven lights, reminding her of fairy dust and boys that never grow old in Neverland.
“Five years and you didn’t change much,” Roark observed, echoing her thoughts. He slumped on the stool next to her and raked his fingers through his hair. “How’s it going?”
“Fine,” she answered, turning off her iPod. “Half a score of teaching kindergarteners—five years part-time, five years full-time—and I’m loving it. What is it that you’re going to ask me?”
When he faced her, his eyes were alight with unreleased laughter. “Are you in a hurry? I know you don’t like small talk, but for chrissake Charlotte, it’s been half a decade since we last sat next to each other like this.”
She didn’t reply. She tore her eyes from his and stared through the transparent glass of the convenience store. The drizzle was slowly transforming into a steady rain, and the street kid that was tapping his dirty fingers on the 7-Eleven logo pealed himself from the glass door and played in the rain.
“I write,” Roark said. “Mostly I contribute articles to local magazines and broadsheet supplementary mags, but I also write storybooks for children. Guess we love working for kids, eh?”
She still didn’t react.
“Come on, Lotte,” Roark teased. “Didn’t you miss me? I arranged this date for us to talk.”
“Date,” she deadpanned, “in 7-Eleven? You’re kidding, right?”
This time he laughed. When they were still in high school, she remembered scribbling his laugh on the top of her mental list of favorite ‘natural’ music. The thought sent invisible fists of nostalgia to punch her stomach.
“This is where we first met,” Roarked said, “so I guess it’s a good place to start. Do you still remember that night? You’re seven, and you ran away from home because your father scolded you for playing with a dozen of spiders in matchboxes.”
“Ah, and spiders’ wrestling on stick,” she continued, smiling despite herself. “I bribed my little brother—five Cloud 9 bars, I remember that—so he won’t tell our father about my playthings. He didn’t keep his end of the bargain though, after he ate all those chocolates and I have no more to give him. So I got scolded and ran away. I swear I was a fully-pledged Girl Scout back then, but I never prepared and only brought a pink toothbrush with me.”
“And then I came into the picture,” Roark said with a grin. “I went over to this very stool where I’m sitting right now and offered you a sip of my bubblegum-flavored Slurpee. I thought you were crying because you have no toothpaste at home, and I said there’s a kiddie toothpaste that has bubblegum and tutti-fruitti flavors and thought it would be the same if I just give you something that tastes like it.”
They both laughed at their earliest memory together. Roark took her hand gently and she observed how her palm felt warm in the small cavern of his fingers. She wanted to pull away, wanted to know how he could magically change her mood, but she couldn’t. They didn’t say anything for a couple of minutes; they just stared straight outside, two twenty-seven-year-olds whose paths have fatefully diverged and converged again.
“Come,” Roark muttered under his breath. “I have something to show you.”
He ignored her complaints when he dragged her outside. Apparently neither has brought an umbrella, and when Charlotte was finally opting to just go back inside, Roark pulled her into the rain.
“Run,” he chuckled, letting go of her hand as he did a droll little pirouette and dropped out of the sidewalk. “Run, Charlotte! Let’s go!”
He dashed to the other side of the street and weaved through a dancing, shrieking swarm of street urchins. Even if almost all other sounds were drowned in the pounding downpour, Charlotte knew Roark was laughing because his mouth was open in childlike glee. She followed him in panicky little strides, cursing silently for choosing to wear wedge heels as she shielded her head uselessly with her cupped hands.
The raindrops were a witness to it. She tried to keep up with Roark but he was too fast, going too far away from her. Just as she was about to call his name, he turned around and reached out to her, his stance regal and ridiculous at the same time because he looked like he was just asking her for a dance. She caught his hand and they sprinted together, not caring about the splashing storm, not caring how absurd they might look to people around them. In that moment Charlotte swore she was a teenager again, swore that she possessed that happiness again, swore that maybe—just maybe—they could start another forever again, because the forever he promised her before ended suddenly that it took her a long while before she felt the pain, before she realized it was over…
Charlotte’s eyes were laden with tears when Roark stopped in front of an old establishment. Charlotte recognized that it was the bookstore they used to frequent when they were still teenagers. The business has closed two summers ago, unable to compete with major bookstores mushrooming around the city. Roark led her inside; she followed without a soundbite.
“I talked with Sebastian for this,” Roark explained as they climbed the stairs in the dark. “Good kid. He’s the son of Mr. Navarra—remember the good old man? He’d give us tea when we go here to read books yet never buy them."
“Of course I remember,” Charlotte croaked. She saw Roark looked at her and quickly looked away, as if he couldn’t take it if he would see her crying. “What are we doing here?”
In response, Roark flicked a switch and the fluorescent lamp splashed light over them.
“Welcome to my Paris, Charlotte,” Roark said in an undertone, his eyes fixed on something in the corner of the room. She followed his gaze, which landed on a tall triangular amalgamation of a pair of ladders and a multitude of books. There were smaller stacks of books around it, arranged in a way that it looked like they were mimicking buildings in a metropolis.
Charlotte giggled despite herself, nodding at the triangular thing. “Is that the Eiffel Tower?”
They walked over to the precious tower, and Charlotte pointed at the books that were her teenage favorites. She rubbed the dog-eared copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being with her knuckles, lovingly tracing its yellowing pages. She saw copies of The Kite Runner, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bridge to Terabithia, The Solitude of Prime Numbers…
“Why Paris?” she asked quietly. She could feel him staring at her.
“I don’t know,” he whispered. “I guess it’s because they call it the City of Love.”
Charlotte laughed mirthlessly. “We’re not in love.”
She didn’t know why, but the lie that was intended to hurt him seemed to bounce back and rammed against her chest instead. She became aware that they were still wet from the rain, and it was cold, so cold that her teeth were chattering. She took her iPod from her pocket, muttered thanks that it was still working, and stuck one earphone to her right ear. She played Piledriver Waltz and forced a smile.
“But since we’re here in your Paris, what else can we do?” She curtsied and held her palm up. “Let’s dance?”
He didn’t even hesitate. He took her hand, slid his arm around her and held her while she fumbled to put the other earphone to his ear. They danced slowly to the music that only they could hear—and no, it was not the music from her player but the beats of their hearts, alternately jumping rapidly and slowly at every step. Their fingers fit like puzzle pieces that belong together, and Charlotte felt calm in his hold, like he was cradling her heart in the safety of his own embrace…until she remembered that her heart was never safe in his care.
The world resumed when Charlotte stepped out of his arms.
“I think I’ve you humored you enough,” Charlotte said with a sniff. “What is it that you’re going to ask me? That’s the very point of us meeting, right? You said in the email that you’re going to ask me something.”
Roark didn’t respond right away. He sat at the foot of the makeshift Eiffel Tower, nudging his loafers with his trembling fingers.
“Have you heard about the Plan of the Creation?”
Charlotte snickered sarcastically. “That’s it? What is this, Bible study?”
“Come on, listen to me first,” Roark said, his voice edged with peaking patience. “And it’s not the creation in the Bible I’m talking about. I read about this one while researching for an article.”
Charlotte stayed standing, even if she felt like falling down.
“According to this account, God sought for the help of all his angels to bring about the creation; He didn’t make everything all by Himself. God was the chief designer and He has His assistants, the angels. They worked in the Silver City and in the sky hung the Plan of the Universe. They were designers and architects, if that makes it easier for understanding. Every angel was assigned a Concept to design. Some were assigned Color, some were assigned Music, some were assigned Dimension. And a group of angels was assigned Emotions.” Roark paused for a second to blow at his cupped hands, as if to warm them. “Have you ever wondered how cruel the angel who designed the concept of Love was? And how intelligent he was, because science and philosophy and other branches of knowledge have tried to break it down, but no one has ever come to claim to find out the real Blueprint of Love.”
When he looked up, Charlotte didn’t see a guy in his late twenties who left her broken; she saw the boy she loved and will always love. The angel was cruel indeed, but if it weren’t for him she wouldn’t have shared a precious chunk of her life to the very boy slumped on the floor of this old building.
“H-he’s cruel all right,” she said, looking at her muddied heels. “Is…is that what you’re going to ask me?”
“No,” Roark said tersely.
Of course not. She could feel the blow coming, because she knew all along what it would be. Still, she asked, “What is it, then?”
Roark stood up. “Why didn’t you attend my wedding?”
Because you’re the biggest goddamn idiot in this planet. Because you’re the dumbest and numbest creature that was ever created in this world. Because you play with people’s lives and promise them something and then leave them hanging, leave them bleeding in the open. Because you’re you, and there’s nothing I can do to change it…
Charlotte bit her bottom lip before she spoke. “You know, I read The Fountainhead just last summer and I found out why fate made it so that you and the novel’s main character share the same name. You’re both extremely selfish.”
That answer would suffice, she thought. She combed her hair with her fingers, stood on tiptoe, and planted a kiss on his cheek. She didn’t look him in the eyes when she left, because she promised herself that she wouldn’t let anything stand on her way to be part of a brand new world after stepping out of this building.
She put on her earphones and let the floodgates open; her history was etched on the raindrops that day, because they hid her tears and they were there when a spark of hope—a false one, apparently—bloomed in her heart as she and Roark ran. Maybe she would remember this every time there’s shower, and maybe it would hurt, but soon the rain would wash all the pain away. She knew that.
Roark slumped back at the foot of Eiffel Tower, crying.
He had the chance. That’s the very point of this meeting; he forgave himself and gave himself a chance to come and ask for her forgiveness. But he let it pass.
Didn’t she love him? He wanted to hear from her lips that she did and she still does, but what he received was just exactly what he deserved: to be called selfish. Because he is.
He didn’t tell her that there was no wedding. He didn’t tell her that he backed out the day before the wedding because he didn’t love the girl the way he loved her, that he made the biggest mistake of his life and that he wanted to rectify it. He didn’t say that the girl was hurt too, but he knew that he hurt Charlotte more and he had punished himself for both sins, in the years that they didn’t talk. He said nothing because he wanted to play safe, wanted to know if she still loves him before he said anything. And because of that, he failed.
Everything is in vain.
“I bet you’re laughing at me right now,” Roark said sotto voce, thinking of the angel who prepared the Blueprint of Love.
this story is dedicated to Cindy. For the intermittent but heartfelt messages we exchanged and the little stories enclosed in them. Cheers and be happy! :)